Phi Beta Cons

Higher Education Reform: Try the Classical English System

Sam Karnick, senior editor at the Heartland Institute, responds as follows to my posting, “Is the Academy Reformable?”: 

Professor Langbert’s observations, as quoted by Candace de Russy, are indeed provocative and rather disturbing, as they portray a system disastrously corrupted by totalitarian ideologies. He has the facts largely right, I believe, allowing for some rhetorical flourishes, though I would suggest that reform of universities should proceed anyway. Our institutions of higher education don’t have to be nearly as bad as they are today, and we’re surely going to have them for some time to come. Hence, it would be best to minimize the damage to the extent possible.

 

How, then? Prof. Langbert is definitely correct to observe that the German university system is not a good model for higher education in a free nation. This is a good place to begin a rethinking of the current system. A superior alternative would perhaps begin with the classical English system, in which a student mostly does independent work under tutors, with some classroom instruction.

 

This may sound excessively expensive, though it needn’t be, and the current system is both costly and ineffective. Combining the classical English model with modern technologies such as internet instruction could be a highly economical and effective approach. All true thinkers are autodidacts who have been guided by careful mentors, and this system should foster that. The current system, by contrast, appears to have been designed specifically to prevent that occurring. Academic freedom means little today when institutional hierarchies impose a mentality on all parties involved and both students and professors are encouraged to expose any individuals so reckless as to deviate from the party line. Giving professors and students a reasonable amount of autonomy over their learning would be real academic freedom. In this way, a variety of intellectual, institutional, and pedagogical variations could be tried, and the market could decide which rise to the top. Tenure would exist where it works to create a better education, and would be absent where it did not do so.

 

Such a system would be more likely to arise and thrive if government support for education were to follow the student instead of being sent directly to institutions as is largely the case today. Sending the money directly to institutions creates a situation in which the preferences of government will take precedence over those of students, parents, professors, administrators, and even the general public. Removing the government’s interests from the equation would enable the system better to approximate what its customers want and need.

I am certain that such a system would make for a far superior education, would cut down on political indoctrination, and would be less expensive than our current system, as we discard expensive Germanic, hierarchical processes such as tenure. Of course we are extremely far away from such a situation, given the leviathan that is modern higher education in the United States. However, transformation could occur much more quickly than Prof. Langbert suggests, I think, if government support were to go to students rather than specific institutions. Certainly, anything we can do to move toward a customer-centered approach and away from an institutional-oriented approach would be a great improvement over the present system, and might just lead to rapid improvements and ultimately a through transformation. 

It’s certainly worth a try.

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